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Source: The Day

Conservation groups oppose land swap

Hotel-retail complex developer dealing with state

BY JUDY BENSON

Posted: June 22, 2011
Originally Published: June 7, 2011

As the state legislature winds up business for the regular 2011 session this week, a bill that would allow the state to swap 17 acres of conservation land for 87 acres owned by a developer next to a state forest is the subject of intense eleventh-hour lobbying and maneuvering by supporters and opponents.

The developer, Riverhouse Properties LLC, is seeking to build a hotel and retail complex with a theater or other entertainment venue on the 17-acre site overlooking the Connecticut River across from the Goodspeed Opera House on the eastern side of the river. The parcel is next to its Riverhouse at Goodspeed Station banquet, conference and catering center. The 87 acres abut Cockaponset State Forest.

The 17 acres is part of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Clark Creek Wildlife Area. Tracks used by Connecticut Valley Railroad State Park run between the parcel's east side and Eagle Landing State Park on the west bank of the river.

While both properties are in Haddam, representatives of the more than two dozen statewide environmental organizations, local land trusts and other groups that have joined the opposition say the outcome could affect the fate of conservation land statewide.

"I walked the (17-acre) property and it sealed the deal for me," said Melissa Schlag Proulx of Haddam, who created a website, www.landswap.org, for a group calling itself Stop the Swap, and was at the state Capitol Monday to submit a petition signed by 640 residents of more than 40 towns. She was involved in two opposition rallies.

Land trusts oppose swap

Groups among the opposition include the Old Saybrook, East Haddam, Deep River and Essex land trusts, the Lyme Democratic Town Committee, Friends of Connecticut State Parks, the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, the state chapter of the Sierra Club, Audubon Connecticut, the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, the state Association of Inland Wetland and Conservation Commissions and the Connecticut River Gateway Commission. The commission represents eight lower river valley towns including Old Saybrook, Old Lyme, Lyme and Haddam.

"We are very concerned this would set an extremely poor precedent," said Sara Keaney, president of the Old Saybrook Land Trust.

Rob Smith, who retired in 2007 as the DEP's assistant director of state parks, is among the opponents who believe trading one piece of conservation land for another would undermine future efforts of the state, land trusts and other conservation groups to win the trust of would-be land donors seeking assurances that their property would remain as open space. Smith is now stewardship chairman and a director of the East Haddam Land Trust.

"I spent my career trying to protect land from misuse and abuse," he said. "To have conservation land go to a commercial enterprise is just an anathema to me."

Eileen Grant, president of Friends of Connecticut State Parks, on Sunday sent legislators a letter on behalf of the 6,100-member organization detailing its "fervent opposition."

"The precedent of grabbing desirable state conservation land to benefit private business and local townships could not be more threatening to our state parks and forest system or more detrimental to state citizens," she wrote.

Monday afternoon, an amendment sponsored by Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, was introduced to change the swap measure, part of a larger land conveyance bill that affects several other parcels statewide. The amendment would give the state DEP the responsibility to review the transfer for compliance with its policies and report findings to the legislature, rather than allowing the transfer to move forward through an act of the legislature alone.

The final version of the bill is expected to be acted on by both chambers by the end of the session on Wednesday.

"The DEP does have a procedure that this bill would preempt (without the amendment)," said Martin Mador, legislative chairman for the state Sierra Club chapter and one of the leaders of the opposition. "It's just not good public policy for the legislature. This is not a local issue, but a statewide issue."

DEP hasn't taken stance

The DEP, for its part, has not taken a position on the issue, even after Commissioner Daniel Esty has been pressed for one in several recent public appearances, including at Harkness Memorial State Park on May 18.

"We feel that the proposal can best be vetted by allowing the legislative process to unfold," Dennis Schain, DEP spokesman, said in an email statement.

State Sen. Eileen Dailey, D-Westbrook, has led the swap effort in two unsuccessful attempts in previous legislative sessions and in the current session. Chairwoman of the powerful Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, she could not be reached for comment Monday. One of the opposition leaders is Rep. Philip Miller, D-Ivoryton, who also could not be reached for comment.

Trevor Furrer, managing partner of Riverhouse Partnership, noted that several Haddam town officials supported the swap and the economic development it would bring. Haddam First Selectman Paul J. DeStefano could not be reached for comment Monday.

Furrer argued that the 17-acre parcel was originally purchased by the state as an add-on to the larger conservation purchase of the Eagle Landing State Park property.

"To get the riverfront, it had to take the 17 acres," he said.

In 2009, the developers purchased the 87 acres with the intention of making a trade, and the DEP expressed interest, he said. The 87 acres would provide a northern access point to Cockaponset. If the trade cannot take place, he said, Riverhouse will seek to develop the 87 acres as a housing subdivision.

He also pointed to a consultant's report that said the development would bring almost $400,000 in new tax revenues to Haddam and create 1,421 jobs.